Last year saw the UK release its first critical minerals strategy, in which it outlined bold objectives to revitalise its mining industry to claim a position on the global stage
At present, the country relies almost entirely on imports for these materials, mostly from China and across the European Union. With geopolitical risks rife and the UK having little domestic resources, the strategy aims to secure supply, prepare for the high-tech future, and enable the transition to net zero.
Minerals marked for priority on the list are unsurprising, including the staples cobalt, lithium and silicon, with an additional ‘watchlist’ of those considered vulnerable to sudden shocks, such as nickel and iridium. Lithium carbonate is sought-after world-over, and the UK imported more than 1,500 tonnes in 2019. And while the country has identified its own sources in Cornwall, they are tiny in relation to global figures. Expanding beyond pilots will require companies and the government to overcome significant hurdles, from tech innovation to legislation and public will.
Mining projects can take between 10-15 years to develop, from discovery to first production, depending on the type of site. So although British Lithium produced its first carbonate in 2022, it’s unlikely to improve national resilience just yet, despite the strategy stating global demand for the metal will quadruple.
Seeking a position in the global market place
When it comes to rare earth elements, the UK has few resources to work with. The reserves identified are often uneconomical to develop. This means companies will need to be incentivised if they are to invest. The government has initiated this process with, for example, the Automotive Transformation Fund, which awarded funding to a rare earth magnet alloy manufacturer to conduct a feasibility study for a fully integrated supply chain for permanent magnet production.
Attention has turned to looking for new reserves, but it’s unclear what volume of critical minerals there are as the country’s long mining history was always focused on energy and construction materials, not “future minerals”. The British Geological Survey identified “significant knowledge gaps”, plus a lack of data on the amount and quality of critical raw material sources. Additionally, where critical minerals have been identified, each deposit is likely to require extraction and processing specifically tailored to the characteristics of the holding ore.
As such, the UK remains a significant importer of its priority materials, in part because China, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo have such a dominant share of global platinum, cobalt, copper, lithium and nickel production. Abundance of the elements in those countries has led to established and mature operations there.
But it’s not just about capability; the mining industry has become controversial as it has fallen out of favour with the general public, causing the approval process to be slow, largely influenced by the environmental impact of coal. The consent of local communities is often a significant hurdle – obtaining social licence is an effort all of its own, as the UK government discovered in December after it approved the construction of a new coal mine in Cumbria, north-west England. Hundreds of thousands of petitioners and protesters pointed to the site’s contradiction of the government’s green goals, as it would cause loss of biodiversity and possible contamination of local water sources due to chemical run-off.
Elsewhere, there may be an opportunity for the UK to play a role through innovation in recycling and the circular economy. Funding has already been secured to support battery manufacturer Britishvolt in developing an ecosystem for battery recycling, with more money from the UK Research and Innovation Strategy Challenge Fund going to companies working to recover important materials from used products and recycling the rare metals in magnets.
The BGS concluded it was “highly likely” that the UK would remain heavily reliant on imported supplies of most critical raw materials for the foreseeable future. However, it may have a role to play in the secondary resources market; technological recycling solutions and waste recovery expertise may be able to supplement its home usage and provide a new avenue for exports elsewhere. In order to do so, however, the BGS warned the country would have to carry out detailed mapping of complete supply chains to understand where contributions can be most effectively leveraged.